A ghost story
1 – Settling In
The fireplace in the kitchen draws well. There’s wood stacked out the back. When you run low, just text us and Bob will drop off another trailer load.
There are two full bottles of gas. They should last you the winter, but the service station out on the highway will deliver more. There are numbers for tradesmen on the board inside the back door, in an emergency.
But – phone reception isn’t great. If you can’t get a signal, try the top of the big dune or ten minutes walk up the track towards the road.
Oh and watch out for soft sand across the track after a storm. You can get bogged without a 4WD. There’s a shovel in the outhouse.
I think that’s it. Let me know if you need anything at all.
If you get lonely, drive over to the farm for coffee and a chat. Otherwise, we’ll keep out of your hair, as agreed.
Wishing you a productive winter!
Trish and Bob xx
I fold up the note. Damn. I took phone reception – and more importantly, the internet – for granted. After a few moments’ blank despair I review my options. Pride wins: this city girl is not getting back in her car and heading home for Melbourne with her tail between her legs.
I’ll have to be thrifty with my internet use. Forget FB, Instagram, and Pinterest. Stuff WhatsApp and Twitter. The digital detox will be good for my head and probably my work too. No distractions.
If I get really stuck for research, I can jump in my ute and hit the public library in Warrnambool. It’s only a 20-minute drive to civilisation.
The bluestone cottage is snuggled on the landward side of the barrier dune, among moonah trees. The angular, architect-designed houses further up the coast perch on the dune, enjoying grandiose views over Bass Strait but suffering the blast of winter gales. This cottage was built with shelter in mind, in an age that valued views less than survival.
I’m going to be happy here. This place will look after me.
Exploring my home and workplace for the winter takes all of ten minutes. A snug, sturdy little place; squat and symmetrical under a tin roof. A short entrance hall leads to four timber-floored rooms: bedroom and sitting room at the front; big kitchen diner and small storeroom at the back. A separate bluestone outhouse contains a bathroom, laundry, and tool store. (Expeditions to go pee – in the icy black of a winter’s night. Yikes!) The promised stack of wood against the outhouse wall under a tarp. As tall as I am, and as long as the wall; Bob has been busy.
It takes an hour to unload the ute and find homes for books, clothes, laptop, wetsuit, food, booze, favorite kitchenware, coffee pot, guitar, bedding, towels. ‘Way too much shit, Mum,’ in Adam’s words. (You’re only 21, kiddo. A mature adult needs her comfort.)
The wardrobe and drawers in the bedroom smell musty. I decide to leave my clothes in their bags until tomorrow when I can give the place a good airing.
It’s half-past five and I’m losing the light. Time to start the fire. A brief, frantic search for matches and firelighters comes up trumps. (Seriously: where is my head these days? I should have brought my own.) Plenty of dry kindling and newspaper. Soon, split redgum logs are crackling in the grate. Trish is right: it draws to perfection.
Dinner turns out to be a bowl of chips and half a bottle of shiraz. I’m elated in anticipation of this new adventure but also tired from the journey down. Turning in early.
I wake up in the darkness and fumble for my bedside clock. 02:34.
What is that noise? Just the creaks and murmurs of an unfamiliar old house; the roar of the surf; the breeze in the moonahs; a possum in the apple tree outside the kitchen door. Or something else.
A low, sonorous rumble, like a sleeping person breathing. A person. Breathing.
I grip the heavy rubber-clad torch and slip out of bed, bare feet on the rug, then cool timber boards. Just enough light from my clock to make out the door. Softly I turn the handle, step out into the hallway. It’s coming from the kitchen. Fight – or flight? Out the front door, into the dark – or into the kitchen, where it is breathing?
Fight, if necessary. I’m done with flight. I turn on the torch, grip the kitchen door handle and open it swiftly wide, sweeping the room with the beam of light. Nothing. Wait – there, by the dying embers of the fire, a squat shadow …
I snap on the light. A large tabby cat lifts its head enquiringly, blinks. Apparently reassured, it tucks its head back under its tail, closes its eyes, and resumes its deep, contented purring.
‘Hello, Puss! What are you doing here? Did you sneak in while I was unloading? You can’t stay, you know …’
I open the back door. ‘Out you go.’ A chilly wind slips in. The cat’s coat gives a shiver, but the head stays firmly tucked under its tail as if to say ‘Ain’t happenin’, girl.’ I never did have much authority with animals.
Stuff this. I’m not going to chase a cat around the kitchen in my PJs. And let all the warmth out of the house.
‘Okay, you win. For now. First thing in the morning, you’re out of here.’ I return to my warm bed.
When I wake again, light is flooding into the room around the curtains. Heavy-headed, pushing the tangled hair from my face, I pad out into the kitchen. ‘Mornin’, Puss! Time to go …’
2 – Odd Encounters
The big stingray glides over the pale ground, propelled by a languid ripple of its wingtips. I follow at a respectful distance — until it grows uncomfortable with my persistence, and powers off with a beat of its wings and a snap of its tail, throwing up a concealing cloud of sand.
I kick my fins and head out towards the reef. The sun casts a shifting golden net of light over the aquamarine shallows. In the shadow of the rocks, a deeper lapis lazuli prevails, shading into midnight blue. Suddenly the water is breathtakingly cold, even through my wetsuit.
I was always a strong swimmer in the pool but — being a city kid from inland Canberra — nervous in the sea. That changed when I first donned a mask and snorkel in my thirties, on my honeymoon in Bali. Freed from the necessity of coming up for air, I felt the constriction in my chest disappear and my limbs uncramp. Add fins and a blubbery layer of neoprene wetsuit against the cold, and I’m as happy in the sea as a marine mammal.
Stooping in the shallows to remove my fins, I become aware of a figure on the beach. As I pad ashore, he raises a hand in greeting. An old man, stooped but still tall and broad-shouldered, leaning heavily on a walking stick. A kindly, deeply tanned face fringed by a wispy, white beard.
‘No luck?’ Indicating the empty net bag hanging from my waist.
‘Oh. I wasn’t trying for cray or abalone. Just like to take the net, in case I find interesting bits and pieces.’ He nods. Sceptically?
‘How you getting on at Ma Reid’s place?’ Indicating towards the dune behind which my cottage lies hidden.
‘Yeah, old Martha Reid. All us little tackers called her Ma. She never had no kids of her own, but. No husband, neither.’
‘Ah. That’s why it’s called “Martha’s Cottage”?’ He nods again.
‘How did you know I was staying there?’
‘Word gets out on the bush telegraph. Scientist lady from the big smoke come down to write a book about us.’ He nods some more, solemnly.
‘Bush telegraph? I didn’t think anyone knew I was here. I’ve hardly spoken to a soul in the last four weeks. Just a couple of surfers, and all we said was “How’re you going?” and “Good.”’
He grins mischievously. ‘Sorry. Pulling your leg. I’m Trish’s neighbour. Bill Winters. She said you were staying here. Told me to keep out of your hair. Which I have been doing, but an old bloke gets curious.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Bill, I’m Alice.’ He shakes my cold, damp, sandy hand without demur. ‘Trish never told me about Martha Reid.’
‘Interesting lady.’ Bill nods again, thoughtfully, but seems disinclined to say more. ‘Well, I must be getting along … Enjoy your stay.’ He pauses, appears to reflect, and waves apologetically at the dunes. ‘This is my mother’s country. She was a Gunditjmara lady. There’s a lot of stuff in the dunes that … needs to stay put.’
‘Don’t worry, Bill. I would never disturb any cultural artefacts.’
He smiles sadly. ‘No, I’m sure you wouldn’t. Just thought I should mention it. Well, I’ll be going. Nice to meet you, Alice. Enjoy your stay!’
‘Thanks, Bill. And don’t be a stranger. Drop by the cottage some time, if you’d like. Tell me more about Martha Reid.’
‘Will do. Bye now.’
It’s a warm day for winter. After a couple of hours’ productive work at my laptop and a late lunch, I go beach-combing, barefoot in sun-bleached denim shorts and a well-worn flannel shirt.
Hooded Plover nesting season is approaching. Every hundred meters or so along the beach, the little skittering birds have staked out their territory, in the berm of soft sand at the foot of the primary dune. I’m careful to keep well away. Victims of sea-level rise and changing human beach use, they’re clinging on, at the threshold of extinction. This stretch of coast is one of their last strongholds.
Pairs of oystercatchers quarter the beach, searching for juicy prey in the firm, damp sand. Out on the rocks, gulls squabble and harry the long-suffering cormorants. Mewling terns wheel and dive. The surf crashes rhythmically. The sound so pervades my life and my dreams now, it barely registers.
At length, pleasantly tired from walking, I lie down in the dry, soft sand, in the lee of a big, sun-warmed chunk of basalt, and drift off to sleep.
I wake to find a figure standing over me.
Blinking into the light I make out a child, and the icy hand of panic releases its grip on my heart. A girl, perhaps eight or nine years old, in an old-fashioned pinafore and dress. Long, dark pigtails.
‘Hello. Daddy wants you to know that the tide is coming in. He sent us to tell you. You should go home now.’
I look around. The tide has advanced almost to the foot of the last headland I rounded. I’ll get wet to the waist on the way home unless I hurry. There’s a chilly breeze from the west whipping through the dunes, and cirrus has stolen the sinking sun’s warmth.
‘Oh, thank you! And thank you to Daddy, too,’ I glance around, rubbing my goosebumped arms and rolling down and buttoning my shirt sleeves. ‘But who’s “us”?’
‘My brother and me,’ she waves towards a small figure wandering head down, further along, the beach. ‘He’s shy,’ she shrugs.
I scramble to my feet and brush myself down. ‘Thank you very much. I’m Alice.’
‘I know.’ She regards me seriously. Big, dark eyes in a pale face.
‘What’s your name?’
A sharp gust of wind blows sand in my face. I raise an arm instinctively to protect my eyes. When I look around, I’m alone on the beach.
When I get home, Tubs is waiting for me outside the back door. ‘Couldn’t be bothered to let yourself in this time, Tubs?’ I ask him. He regards me silently for a moment then answers: ‘Meow.’
I still have no idea how this cat gets into and out of my cottage. Sometimes he slips in around my legs after I visit the outhouse for a late-night pee. Other times he’s just there, curled up by the dying embers of the fire. When I wake up in the morning, he’s gone.
I decided to call him Tubs. What else would you call a tubby tabby tomcat?
In my weekly emails to Adam, I call him Tubs the Ghost Cat. ‘Too much red wine again, Mum?’ is Adam’s usual reply.
Ghost cats and serious, old-fashioned little girls called Martha. With daddies who know where I live. Friendly, enigmatic Aboriginal neighbours. Is it weird that all of this has started to seem normal?
3 – Storm Surge
Bill regards me across the kitchen table, tea mug cradled between big, blunt-fingered hands.
‘Tell me more about Martha Reid, Bill.’
He thinks for a moment. ‘Martha inherited this place from a fisherman and his wife, Pat and Niamh Reid, but she wasn’t related to them by blood. She was adopted as a young girl — an orphan.’
‘They took her in?’
‘She just turned up. Sodden and barefoot. Her father was the skipper of a small coastal trader out of Port Albert. Hit a sunker offshore, it appears. Went down in minutes, taking the skipper, his wife, and the deckhand with her. They never found the wreck. All that washed ashore was Martha, her little brother, and a few scraps of flotsam.’
‘She had a little brother?’
‘Henry. They found him wandering on the beach after Martha reached the cottage and the Reids went out to search. The lad was never quite right after that. Passed away within a year.’
‘That’s sad. Poor Martha, all alone. At least she had the Reids to look after her.’
Bill grimaced. ‘Pat Reid was a right hard bastard, by all accounts. Too fond of the grog, and free with his fists. Other nasty habits, too.’
‘Martha put a stop to that.’
‘She was just a little girl, you said?’
‘Rumour has it, he raised his hand to her once, and once only … Nobody knows what she did, but his hair turned white overnight. Meek and mild he was, after that. So they say.’
‘So she was a strong character, Martha.’
‘Not just that. She had a … a goodness about her, a warmth, but she knew things, and she saw things. Ma Reid was someone you wanted on your side.’
‘Bill, this is going to sound ridiculous, but last week, just after you and I met, …’
I tell him about my encounter with the little girl and her brother. Bill listens impassively.
‘Looking back, I wonder if I just dreamed it, napping on the beach,’ I conclude, lamely.
Bill sits still for so long, I start to grow uneasy.
‘The thing is, Alice, this is a powerful place. Not to be trifled with.’
‘I’m not following you, Bill.’
‘What I’m saying is, you should take that seriously. If Ma Reid says it’s time to go home …’
‘Bill, it wasn’t Ma Reid. It was just a little girl called Martha. Anyway, it was her daddy who said it was time to go home. He just meant, head back here to the cottage, before the tide cut me off. Nothing sinister.’
Bill nods. ‘I’m just an old duffer, Alice. Pay no attention to my nonsense. Thanks for the tea.’ He heaves himself up from the table with some effort.
The weather has closed in. Day after day, the sky is leaden. Heavy showers scour the old tin roof, hissing like hot embers or pounding like fists. The gutter overflows and water cascades from the eaves in sheets. The wind howls in the moonahs and I feel the unrelenting surf, a vibration deep in my bones. Salt spray drifts over the dune, a fine mist that stings my sinuses and makes my eyes itch.
The atmosphere in the cottage has changed, subtly. There’s a curious ozoney, salty, almost fishy smell in the kitchen sometimes. A damp chill oozes through the floor, despite my keeping the fire stoked day after day, night after night. Tubs has stopped coming. I guess he’s curled up in front of someone else’s fire.
I’m listless and can’t seem to concentrate on my work. My publisher’s reaction to what I’ve submitted so far is discouraging, fussy; hardly a strong motivation. When the editor’s feedback is longer than your manuscript, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that your work sucks.
Just to make life more difficult, phone reception is poor at best: just one or two bars on 3G. This won’t do.
On one morning that’s less dreary than the others, I pull on some halfway respectable clothes, grab my laptop and drive to Warrnambool. An opulent Chocolate Envy and a double-shot latte at Two Tarts bakery are followed by a productive morning at the library, surfing the sugar and caffeine high. I dive off into two glorious hours lounging in hot, mineralized, murky water at Deep Blue spa, punctuated by visits to the icy plunge pool.
My sleep has become irregular. Time and again I wake with a start as if someone has just shouted my name. Then by day, I’m groggy and fuzzy-headed. Literally, if I look in the mirror — which I try not to do. Straggles? Medusa isn’t even in the running. The bathroom is mildewed, the walls constantly slimy, as the extractor fan isn’t up to the job. Not much incentive to linger; many days I skip the shower altogether.
Bob and Trish come over to check on me. Trish wrinkles her nose, surveys the kitchen and cocks an eyebrow at the boxes of empty bottles next to the dresser.
‘Haha. I missed the last recycling collection.’
‘Bob will take that lot away for you.’
The man himself charges in from the courtyard, puffing, shaking his shoulders in the Driza-Bone like a dog, dripping puddles on the floor.
‘Shit, this weather’s lousy. Never known it like this for so long.’
He tells me they’re concerned about the condition of the barrier dune. There’s a big blow-out a kilometer to the east which is getting rapidly worse, undercut on the seaward side by the storm surge.
‘If the dune goes, it could get a little damp around here.’
‘Damper than it already is?’
‘Ohhhh yes.’ He promises to keep me up-to-date. ‘If the worst comes to the worst, there’s always room for you at our place.’
‘Daddy says you should go home now.’ Martha is standing next to my bed. ‘Martha, sweetie, what are you doing here?’
I jolt awake. Blink in the darkness. There’s a figure in the corner of the darkened room. A shadow blacker than the black around it.
‘Daddy says you should go home now.’
I wake, heart pounding. Martha’s dark eyes, pale face. Her breath on my cheek.
‘Daddy says it’s time to go.’
I claw my way to consciousness through layer upon layer of nightmare, click on the bedside lamp, and lie gasping.
Then I smell it.
The stench of a thing once living, at the bottom of the sea for a hundred years. It fills my nostrils, clogs my throat with its rotting. Indescribably awful. It draws me to my feet, gagging. I stumble into the hallway, into the kitchen, drawn ever onward. There.
Sitting hunched at the table. Massive, gelatinous. Dark and glistening in the firelight. Empty sockets turned towards me.
‘Daddy has come to take you home.’
I turn and run. Out the front door. Water swirls and grabs at my ankles in the darkness. Branches scratch and tear at my nightclothes as I stumble up the dune.
Severe storms are battering the Southwest Victorian coast with hurricane-force winds, causing flooding in low-lying areas. Residents are advised to avoid travel if possible and to take shelter indoors. In Belfast Reserve near Warrnambool, a storm surge has breached the coastal dune and inundated farmland. A woman was airlifted to hospital after spending the night stranded on the dune. She is believed to be in a stable condition. Stay tuned for updates.
Coast FM, 3 August, 8 a.m.